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Meet the Winners 2012

Lyn Hughes presents the best guides in the world – the four winners of this year’s Wanderlust World Guide Awards...

As many Wanderlusters know, a great guide has the power to turn your trip into the experience of a lifetime. Passionate, caring, tireless – guides have always been the unsung heroes of the travel world. Until recently.

Wanderlust co-founder (and my late husband) Paul Morrison was a firm believer in the importance of good guides and, after his death in 2004, I set up the World Guide Awards in his honour. They are the only awards of their kind in the world and are designed to provide a long-lasting way of recognising some truly special people.

Now in their seventh year, the awards continue to go from strength to strength. We were inundated with thousands of nominations and, after sifting through a mountain of worthy nominees, we have whittled them down to one incredible winner and three exceptional runners-up. Scroll through to the next page to find out who bagged the crown...

How the winners were chosen

Earlier this year, we asked whether you’d travelled with an outstanding guide. We received an incredible response, with well over 1,000 nominations. At this point we gradually worked the nominee guides down to a shortlist of five and invited your testimonials. The judging panel then met to decide on the winner and two runners-up.

The winner, announced earlier this evening during a moving ceremony at the Royal Geographical Society, has won a £5,000 bursary. The silver award winner scooped a £2,500 bursary and the bronze winners will share a £1,500 bursary, all of which will be spent on worthwhile projects of their choices.

Further prizes at the event were provided by Swarovski OptikNomad Travel Store and Powertraveller, so thanks to them for their support. And to you, for your nominations!

Wanderlust World Guide Awards Bronze: Nyi Nyi ‘Frankie’ Naing

Guides in: Burma/Myanmar
For: Golden Travel/Panoramic Journeys

Nyi Nyi (Frankie) is a colourful and engaging character. A former teacher, this intelligent and worldly guide lets his clients feel genuinely connected to the local communities and cultures they visit. Perceptive, selfless and seemingly tireless, Frankie also helps run Travel Myanmar Tourism Group and volunteers with an orphanage. Frankie is a tour professional and true humanitarian, for whom nothing is too much trouble.

What Wanderlust readers said:

“Frankie is a pioneer of his profession who has done a great deal for tourism in Myanmar. He is a key person, connecting communities within Burma.”; “He was the most gracious guide I have ever travelled with, and I’ve travelled with a few.”; “When we were given tea in a monastery one afternoon, he left the group and unobtrusively knelt in thanks before the monk who had given us hospitality.”; “A truly extraordinary human being, knowledgeable about the history, natural history, religious life and culture and eager and patient in helping broaden our understanding.”; “He was unfailingly generous in explaining issues which were sometimes hard for him, but made our understanding of this political conundrum much easier.”; “He speaks excellent English (and several other languages) with colloquialisms. Every day he taught us a new word of his language and interpreted the news for us.”; “He balanced differing needs and rearranged itineraries with immense skill making it appear effortless.”; “Frankie made a great trip outstanding and he is a top-rate ambassador for the country.”; “An exemplary humanitarian character, transcending that of a mere guide.”; “Having Nyi Nyi as our guide was inspirational. It made Burma the holiday of a lifetime.”

The judges’ view:

These comments are just the tip of Frankie’s praise iceberg. Being extremely well-informed he brings history alive for his guests, many of whom leave his tours as personal friends. Extraordinarily kind, happy and smiling even at 4am, Frankie’s immense knowledge complements his boundless sensitivity for people and their lands.

Bursary plans

Frankie continues to work tirelessly with communities affected by Cyclone Nargis. He’s considering contributing towards a rice drying and storage facility to reduce the villagers’ dependence on third parties, allowing them to benefit more from their labours.

Wanderlust World Guide Awards 2012Bronze: Bhupendra Sharma

Guides in: India/Nepal
For: G Adventures

An avalanche of positive adjectives tumble from your mountain of praise for Bhu. Knowledgeable, compassionate, patient, respectful and considerate are just a few. Besides being everything a great guide should be (intelligent, insightful, wise, engaging and charming), Bhu also finds time to deliver supplies to local families and to change itineraries to help grant his passengers’ lifelong wishes.

What Wanderlust readers said:

“Bhupendra stands in a class by himself. Here is a man whose caring for the travellers in his charge extends way beyond the business of touring. His heart is huge and, frankly, knows no bounds. I commend Bhupendra to you without reservation.”; “Bhu seemed to know EVERYONE in the country. One of our group got lost and wondered into a café. Its owner had Bhu’s number in his mobile phone already!”; “It took Bhu just one meeting to remember everybody’s name. And who could forget Bhu’s magic bag, which seemed to contain whatever we needed, when we needed it?”; “We were the only non-Indians in a sea of locals at a fair. It was magical, fascinating, fun and wouldn’t have happened without Bhu.”; “I continued travelling after my tour. What I learned with Bhu armed me with the skills and customs I would need as a lone female travelling in India.”; “He was helpful about suggesting ways in which we could contribute to a community.”; “Most exceptional was when one of us became gravely ill. He stayed with her after everyone left, missing his next job to help her through a terrifying ordeal in a Nepali hospital. He is an amazing human being.”

The judges’ view:

What doesn’t Bhu know about India? Exemplifying the word welcome, Bhupendra impressed his guests so much that one hopes to take her children to meet him one day. He has amazing organisational skills in a country full of chaos and answers every question with humour and aplomb. Bhu treats people with the respect reserved for his own family (you are either his brother, sister, father or mother) and takes them to the heart of the real India.

Bursary plans

Bhu is guiding so we haven’t been able to find out how he’ll spend his bursary. With such genuine concern for the people, places and projects he visits, we’re sure he’ll put it to excellent use.

Wanderlust World Guide Awards 2012Silver: Simyra Taback-Hlebechuk

Guides in: Alaska
For: Hallo Bay Wilderness Camp

Alaskan brown bear guide Simyra represents the very best of the best. A proponent of the ‘Leave No Trace’ ethos, she also teaches on the Girl Scouts’ Women in Science programme. Simyra provides free tours to scientists and students, funded a year at the Hallo Bay Camp for someone of limited means but boundless passion, and granted the last wishes of a man dying of cancer. Her respect for the wilderness makes her an exceptional guide.

What Wanderlust readers said:

“Simyra protects a unique sanctuary from a mass of tourists.”; “If you love nature and you love Alaska, Simyra is the guide you want with you.”; “She understands the role of humans in a pristine wild environment as well as the impact we can have unintentionally.”; “Her attention to safety, both in real time and at the briefings, was precise and unquestionable.”; “A range of expertise far beyond expectation in guest safety, complete familiarity with the terrain and intimate knowledge of the flora and fauna of the Katmai Coast.”; “Guests, even timid ones like myself, are immediately drawn to her calm presence while exploring known bear habitat.”; “Not only did Simyra care and protect for her guests, she cared and protected the bears. This made a huge difference to our experience.”; “Her sensitivity towards the environment is evident in the rules she sets and stands by while at the bear camp in the park.”; “She leads a team of guides and a camp in one of the most pristine environments in the world and works very hard to keep it that way. Who else do you know who has a wilderness camp and not one single issue with creatures sneaking around foraging about for food?”

The judges’ view:

Simyra is an unparalleled outdoors-woman and guide who treats everyone the same – like royalty. When a veteran Planet Earth cameraman calls her an exemplar (charming, polite, knowledgeable and accommodating) you know you’ve found someone very special indeed. Her professionalism shines through and she’s highly respected on the Kenai Peninsula, sitting on the board of its tourism body.

Bursary plans

Simyra is thinking of sharing her bursary between local non-profits groups like the Animal Shelter and the FriendsofKatmai.org, Senior Shelter and Community Food Pantry in her home town of Homer, Alaska.

Wanderlust World Guide Awards 2012Gold: Luca Alfatti

Guides in: Various
For: Dragoman

Luca has been a Dragoman driver for six years. He’s driven from London to Beijing and journeyed the length of South America, Africa and India, inspiring clients to become guides en route. His passion for life and for knowledge is contagious and his commitment to giving every single person their trip of a lifetime jumped off the page. Fluent (and entertaining) in a generous handful of languages, Luca memorises guidebooks so guests don’t need to bring their own. This one-man Lonely Planet lets his clients feel like travellers not tourists. Bravo.

What Wanderlust readers said:

“Luca lives for his job, 24/7, ten months a year. He basically IS his job and he clearly loves it.”; “He can have an interesting conversation with a 19-year-old backpacker or a 75-year old widow.”; “Six hours after our initial meeting, Luca had welded us into a team. He had us eating out of his hand – and happy to be doing so!”; “Knew the history of Khive, the cultural codexes in Iran and the best hikes around Altyn Arashan in Kyrgyzstan.”; “He has superb self-control. Even the most obstreperous client or official fails to disturb his equanimity, politeness and geniality.”; “Exceptionally responsible.”; “His great language and social skills came in handy when border crossing some of the worst red-tape countries in the world, from China to Turkmenistan.”; “Luca remembered information from conversations with us, throughout the trip. This feeling of a personal experience is truly rare in the tour business these days.”; “His knowledge throughout the entire trip was truly incredible, from interesting historical facts to street awareness and knowledge of local cultures and beliefs. He made all on the bus comfortable in a truly strange and daunting experience.”

The judges’ view:

Clear, confident and precise from day one, Luca is a charismatic communicator par excellence. Everything was always perfectly under control, which helped his clients feel safe, included and valued. An “overlanding legend” he is professionalism personified, and what he doesn’t know about truck mechanics…

Bursary plans

Luca wants to support orphans and abandoned mothers at a community in Guatemala. He’d like to take qualifications to improve his skills too.